Google Search is under attack by its users. More than a few Reddit users have said, to borrow a line from Duke Ellington, that Google search ain’t what it used to be.
A lead critic is blogger DKB (a software engineer named Dmitri Brereton) who complained in a blog post that Reddit's crowdsourced posts provide more useful information than Google does. Response was swift and supportive on Reddit and Hacker News. The post was soon cited by The New Yorker (What Google Search Isn’t Showing You by Kyle Chayka) and The Atlantic (The Open Secret of Google Search by Charlie Warzel) in their own articles on Google search’s diminishing usefulness.
To sum up Mr. Brereton’s argument, Google search favors sites that have cracked its secretive rules for ranking results. These sites are engineered to be shiny objects for Google’s crawler, generating traffic for themselves but providing little information of value to the actual humans who click through.
I've found this to be true in my Google experience as well, but it's not the only thing that frustrates me. So I wondered: is search quality really the biggest concern, or is there something else that frustrates users as much or more? I thought a study like this would be a great way to demonstrate how pairLab can be used for product management.
To find out, I invited Google search users to participate in this pairLab study. Participants were asked to judge and weigh the characteristics of Google search that they find frustrating. The answers to these questions are important to both Google and its competitors considering Google accounts for about 87% of the search engine market in the U.S.
What Is pairLab and Why Use It?
pairLab is a novel and powerful prioritization tool that helps you make decisions by revealing what people care about most and by how passionate they are about their priorities. Studies like this are critical for product managers and business stakeholders who need to prioritize product features. It's the kind of tool that, once you've seen how it works, you wonder how you ever lived without it.
This study found that there is a surprising lack of trust in Google’s search results. Participants said that the most frustrating aspects of Google search are “results that are manipulated by SEO,” “Google ranks its own products first,” and “results link to sites/videos that are really advertisements'' – all features that erode trust in search results. Other aspects of Google search, such as the presence of ads and a dated design, leave much less of a negative impression on users.
pairLab makes priorities comparable, and we can say how much more frustrating one aspect of Google search is over another. The difference between the first- and last-place aspects are considerable. Users find “results are manipulated by SEO” 7.7 times more frustrating than the last-place aspect, “I must tell Google what sites to search.”
pairLab also breaks down priorities by customer segments and compares them to find deep insights. This study analyzed Google search customers who self-identified as enthusiasts, acceptors and detractors. Two of these groups groups expressed unique frustrations related to ads:
- Enthusiasts said that they find it difficult to tell the difference between real results and ads
- Detractors said they find too many ads a problem
What Can Google (or a Competitor) Do?
If we were Google, we’d inform our product roadmap using pairLab’s results. Where to start? pairLab groups frustrations by high, moderately high, moderate, and low-priority groups:
Results are manipulated by SEO are inauthentic
Google ranks its own products first
Results link to sites/videos that are really advertisements
Search results pushed down by 'People also ask' and quick answer boxes
My search follows me as ads on other sites
Google doesn't understand what I really mean or want
Google gives me results for content behind a paywall I can't access
Difficult to tell the difference between real results and ads
Too many ads
I must tell Google what sites to search
Results after the first page aren't useful
We’d start with the high and moderately high groups because users are most passionate about these frustrations and most of them encompass the lead problem: a lack of trust in search results.
But what if we were Google’s competitors? How would we look at these data? The high and moderately high frustrations are ones we’d work hard to avoid. We’d create value by being sure our results engender trust among our customers while worrying less about design.
There’s a lot more to this story, the details of which you can find in the full report -- including the study methodology, findings by segments that identify as "enthusiasts," "acceptors" and "detractors," how the results from those segment compared, and a discussion of how pairLab works. There's a lot of good stuff in it. Download the report.
Cover image: hobvias sudoneighm, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons